The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente
Any book by Catherynne M. Valente contains both the unexpected and the unsurprising. You can always anticipate clever wordplay, a sense of whimsy, and prose that just stops short of purple, but in regards to content all bets are off. She can write anything, from a Wild-Western Snow White, to a brand new take on Arabian Nights, to a sci-fi, alt-history space opera mystery.
And in this case, the plot of The Glass Town Game (2017) almost defies description. Four children, who just happen to be Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë (yes, THOSE Brontës), are being sent away to boarding school when a mysterious train pulls up and whisks them away to Glass Town. Astonishment reigns since this is the imaginary city of their make-believe games, where Napoleon and Wellington are embroiled in a decades-long war, where every figure-of-speech is taken literally (from champagne flutes to patchwork fields), and even death itself doesn’t play by the rules.
Having found themselves in a world that’s based on their own imaginative games, the children attempt to get their bearings and understand the “rules” of their new reality — though the sight of a potion that raises the dead immediately calls to mind their deceased mother and older sisters. If they can get a hold of it, could they restore them to life?
As much as I love Valente’s work, I don’t think The Glass House Game is one of her best. Though each of the Brontë siblings is carefully drawn, from Charlotte’s sense of responsibility as the oldest, to Branwell’s insecurity over his preadolescent masculinity, to Emily’s giddy romanticism and Anne’s youngest-child-syndrome, the story itself is a bit lacking. The plot veers back and forth erratically, and answers are never forthcoming as to what exactly is going on.
A lot of what’s written here made more sense in hindsight, after I discovered that the real-life Brontë children did in fact create an imaginary world known as Glass Town, populated by figures such as Wellington, Napoleon, Scott, and Byron, and Valente clearly did her research when it came to the particulars of their lives. But this only makes the book feel like a vessel for her interest in the subject rather than a story in its own right, and the whole thing would probably mean more to someone familiar who has already read Tales of Glass Town, Angria and Gondal (which I imagine is not many children).
Valente’s work delves into some dark themes, such as the permanency of death and the terrible cost of war, as well as the power of stories and the imaginative force that goes into children’s games. There are plenty of allusions to other works, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Monty Python, which enrich the text and inspire readers to seek out further readings.
But The Glass Town Game never really “took off” for me, especially not in the way the FAIRYLAND series did. I wonder if it was because Valente was relying on the imaginations of the Brontës instead of her own.
Sounds like I’d better do some pre-reading and research before I get into this one. Thanks for the heads-up (and great review), Rebecca!